Downtown Phoenix seems like it’s booming all over with new apartment towers and light rail lines under construction and new restaurants and bars opening throughout the city center. There’s one glaring exception, though: The Arizona Center. The big development bounded by Van Buren, Fillmore, Third, and Fifth Streets has a recently opened AC Hotel and a massive residential building going up, but its retail space is largely vacant. Despite a recent makeover, the complex is down to just a handful of restaurants, and all but one, Omoide, is a chain.
It’s not entirely clear why the Arizona Center struggles to fill its storefronts even as student populations from the three state universities take classes in the surrounding blocks and office workers return from pandemic-induced telecommuting. The most likely explanation is that even with a fresh coat of paint, the Arizona Center has an inward-facing design from another era, and that layout makes it hard to discover the businesses within. With the closure of longtime local favorites like Mi Amigos and Canyon, Omoide is now the only non-franchise to discover there.
Omoide’s niche is a counter service restaurant specializing in Korean and Japanese foods with some broader attempts to serve items derived from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines. The Korean/Japanese hybrid, a common legacy from a time when many Americans were more comfortable with sushi than bibimbap. The restaurant is found deep inside the Arizona Center, a walk of about three blocks from the light rail platforms at Van Buren and about the same distance from the Third Street stations. Bike racks are found at Third Street and Van Buren.
The decor is minimal with just a few decorative prints with some writing in Korean characters.. Customers eating in the compact space sit at a handful of tables or a counter along one of the walls. Some additional seating is available outside on a shaded patio. As they enter, visitors study printed menus placed along a small sushi bar that leads to a cashier. Although this arrangement makes it impossible to sit at the sushi bar, the configuration does allow customers to see what looks fresh as they decide what to order as they advance through a lunchtime line.
The menu offers various lunch combinations such as teriyaki chicken with rice, salad, and California rolls or assorted nigiri or sashimi with salad and miso soup. Many of the cooked entrees draw from Korean influence with favorites like spicy beef or even occasional specials such as pork bulgogi. These are generally successful, as are the Japanese-inspired teriyaki and yakisoba meals. Other hot items offered on combination plates or in bowls include Americanized Chinese classics like fried rice, honey sesame chicken, and sweet and sour pork.
In terms of noodle soups, Omoide offers a serviceable bowl of ramen, but the better options are either the Korean ramen, unabashedly made with instant noodles in a spicy broth with bean sprouts, napa cabbage, zucchini, and a soft egg in the bowl or the champong, a Korean soup with mixed seafood and noodles in a milky broth. Tempura udon features a dark broth full of thick noodles, imitation crab, crisp rice, and scallions. The accompanying plate of tempura includes vegetables like sweet potato along with the usual breaded and fried shrimp.
As expected, these soups of Korean and Japanese origin hold up better than the pho, which seems more like an attempt to offer all things to everyone in terms of east Asian cuisine. This soup, along with the pad thai, is an argument for keeping a narrow focus with consistently good results rather than trying to please everybody. Of course, that seemingly simple mission may be easier in theory than reality when Omoide is not only the sole Asian restaurant within the Arizona Center, but also the only independent restaurant of any type within the development.
Sushi is a relative strength here. As at so many places, many of the rolls are fashioned with cream cheese and fried ingredients. Nevertheless, there are some standouts with a lighter approach. The Hawaiian Roll begins with avocado, spicy tuna, and cucumber and then adds a top layer of avocado, tuna, and ponzu sauce. The Sunset Roll has an uppermost levelcalled “salmon tempura,” but it’s more like grilled salmon, and it works well over an underlying structure of avocado, spicy tuna, and cucumber enlivened with spicy mayo and eel sauce.
Typical sushi accompaniments like edamame or a generous seaweed salad plated over greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes also work well at Omoide. It is certainly possible to put together a meal of shared appetizers or two or more courses; however, there is no dessert here. The closest options in that department are the Bosa Donuts and Cold Stone Creamery outlets found nearby within the Arizona Center. There is a liquor license with beverage offerings focused on bottles of sake and Japanese beer, as well as non-alcoholic alternatives like bottled green tea.
As the Arizona Center tries to find its footing in a downtown landscape that is busier than it has been in decades, it’s not clear if it can attract food and beverage tenants to replace those that have vanished. The downtown campus of Arizona State University is back to life, and the health sciences programs offered by the other two state universities continue to grow across the street. With these student populations, along with residents of the new 28-story tower being built, it will be interesting to see if the Arizona Center can cultivate more tenants like Omoide.
455 N. 3rd St. #1120, Phoenix AZ 85004